'Heart' of a Movement

A new production of a radical play gives early AIDS activists their due

June 13, 2012

The cast of Arena Stage’s new mounting of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart”: Front row (left to right): Patricia Wettig, Luke MacFarlane and Michael Berresse; back row (left to right): Chris Dinolfo, John Procaccino, Tom Berklund, Nick Mennell, Christopher J. Hanke, Jon Levenson and Patrick Breen.

In the beginning, there was GRID. It was the early 1980s, and gay men were dying from a disease that doctors had labeled Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. No one understood much more about it — or the scope of the encroaching worldwide health crisis that we would soon call AIDS.

Larry Kramer knew his best friends were dying. He knew there was a lot of fear and few resources to help them. He knew he was angry.

Kramer, a gay New York writer who had been chronicling gay life in America since the 1970s, was never one to stand on the sidelines. In 1982, he co-founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, which helped bring medical assistance and support to people with AIDS. He later also founded the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, which staged dramatic protests to draw attention to the need for support and prevention services.

But Kramer’s writing remained some of his most potent activism, including his 1985 play, “The Normal Heart,” which dramatized the early efforts of GMHC and ACT UP. When “The Normal Heart” premiered at New York’s Public Theater in 1985, it told a story most people had never heard before: of gay men struggling to maintain a community even as a plague decimated their circle of loved ones and a nation turned its back on the victims out of fear.

Today, the experiences of the gay community in the early years of AIDS have become woven into America’s history. And Kramer’s play has found a much wider audience: It’s been revived several times since the ’80s, and last year “The Normal Heart” made its way to Broadway and won three Tony Awards. But Daryl Roth, a producer of a new production of the play at Arena Stage (directed by George C. Wolfe, who also led the Broadway production), says that doesn’t reduce its radical impact.

“There’s a little bit of distance,” she says. “For audiences seeing this play originally, it was so raw and so difficult, being in the midst of it all. I think people now … can view it with all the strength and rage that it was written with, but with a different understanding. I think it’s been acknowledged more as a beautiful play, a beautiful love story.”

“The Normal Heart” is a kind of love story: It’s about compassion and loyalty. But it is also a story of grief and injustice. Hero Ned Weeks (a thinly veiled version of Kramer himself, played by Patrick Breen) is part of a close-knit group of friends, many of whom begin to come down with a mysterious, incurable virus. In their efforts to find care, they meet barrier after barrier of discrimination and resistance. Their only institutional ally is Dr. Emma Brookner (Patricia Wettig), a wheelchair-bound dynamo who fights continuously for funding and recognition to research the disease that’s killing her patients.

“It’s almost as if the piece has found its time now,” says Wettig. “When it was done originally, maybe it was just too close. There was no distance from AIDS and the virus.” She says it’s hard for her to get through the play, even in rehearsal, without having a deep emotional reaction.

“Now when you watch it, it’s not just about the history, it’s more than that. It’s a cathartic experience,” she says. “It’s an important piece. There’s a scale to it that is operatic.”

When it opened, Kramer’s play was a passionate demand for visibility for those affected by AIDS. In the years since, social awareness and acceptance of gays and all people living with AIDS have increased significantly. Education, resources and medical advancements have changed what AIDS means to a new generation — which we owe to the efforts of activists such as Kramer. “Because there are drugs, because people can live with AIDS, I think it’s even more important for a younger generation to under-stand the impact of this event,” Roth says. She notes that young actors who perform in benefits for organizations like Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS don’t always understand exactly why those organizations were formed — until they see “The Normal Heart.”

“It’s speaking to a younger generation not only to enlighten and educate, but to let them know what passion and what tenacity and what challenges the characters in this play, these real people, dealt with,” she says. “It was also a way for me to honor people that were there, people that lost so many friends. It’s an honor and an education.”

Arena Stage, Kreeger Theater, 1101 6th St. SW; through July 29, $40-$109, see website for showtimes; 202-488-3300. (Waterfront/SEU)
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Marc Silver | June 13, 2012